Properties of Cybernetic Systems

Cybernetic systems generally are characterized by (1) information systems that integrate system components, (2) low-energy feedback regulators that have high-energy effects, and (3) goal-directed stabilization of high-energy processes. Mechanisms that sense deviation (perturbation) in system condition communicate with mechanisms that function to reduce the amplitude and period of deviation. Negative feedback is the most commonly recognized method for stabilizing outputs. A thermostat represents a simple example of a negative feedback mechanism. The thermostat senses a departure in room temperature from a set level and communicates with a temperature control system that interacts with the thermostat to readjust temperature to the set level. The room system is maintained at temperatures within a narrow equilibrial range.

Organisms are recognized as cybernetic systems with neurological networks for communicating physiological conditions and various feedback loops for maintaining homeostasis of biological functions. Cybernetic function is perhaps best developed among homeotherms. These organisms are capable of self-regulating internal temperature through physiological mechanisms that sense change in body temperature and trigger changes in metabolic rate, blood flow, and sweat that increase or decrease temperature as necessary. However, energy demand is high for such regulation. Heterotherms also have physiological and behavioral mechanisms for adjusting body temperature within a somewhat wider range but with lower energy demand (see Chapters 2 and 4). Regardless of mechanism, the result is sufficient stability of metabolic processes for survival.

Although self-adjusting mechanical systems and organisms are the best-recognized examples of cybernetic systems, the properties of self-regulating systems have analogs at supraorganismal levels (B. Patten and Odum 1981, Schowalter 1985, 2000). Human families and societies express goals in terms of survival, economic growth, improved living conditions, and so on and accomplish these goals culturally through governing bodies, communication networks, and balances between reciprocal cooperation (e.g., trade agreements, treaties) and negative feedback (e.g., economic regulations, warfare).

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